Almost universally, coaches and parents report to me their advice to players regarding competing effectively includes the aim to control uninvited match related thoughts and feelings like nerves, frustration, and helplessness. For example, statements like: "Believe in yourself", "Stay calm", "Don't worry about the outcome", "Accept errors", Don't get frustrated at the wind", etc, etc.
While this is well-intentioned and sensible on the surface, a crucial question to reflect on in trying to help players improve is this:
How well does it work?
For example, when Roger Federer went down a break in the third set against Hurkacz, do you think his dominant thoughts and feelings were more reflective of self-belief or helplessness.
He let us know in the press conference that he was feeling helpless: "Well, in the last few games I could feel that I wasn't going to come back".
And I strongly suspect that based on the situation he was in, and the point he is currently at in his career, no matter what his coaches said before the match, or what he tried to do during the match, there was not much he could have done to prevent the reality of powerful helplessness feelings and the associated thoughts like: "there's nothing I can do" being a dominant part of his internal experience of the third set...
This is because, on this occasion, Federer became dominated by the internal experience of helplessness.
Throughout evolution it has increased the chance of human survival to be able to predict the outcomes of conflict, so that rather than becoming involved in a fight that can’t be won and risking death, a better choice for our ancestors was to submit early and save their life.
The hangover of this process may be what we now experience as helplessness.
Our minds naturally look forward and predict the outcomes of competition.
When a player looks forward and predicts that there is nothing in his/her control that can influence the outcome he/she will experience helplessness.
The thoughts, “There’s nothing I can do” show up and his/her desire to compete is sapped.
Because we tend to act based on these experiences players tend to automatically weaken when they become controlled by this ‘submission’ response, and so it was for Federer.
This begs the question...
Should we be explicitly encouraging players to try to control difficult, unintentional match related thoughts and feelings like helplessness as they show up in matches?
In my view this is typically not the best way to help players.
What Works Better...
In advising a player to best respond to helplessness. for example, during matches, here's a simple version of what I suggest coaches/parents include in pre-match chats:
Step 1.) Discuss and make a plan and encourage the player to commit to a helpful process (likely a strategy) that increases the chance of success.
Step 2.) Instead of following this with the usual advice to control unintentional thoughts and feelings, have a short discussion where you openly discuss and normalise the likely difficult thoughts and feelings that the player might experience during the match.
##An important note here is when we make this step a regular part of pre-match preparation, we can begin to ask players to come up with the difficult thoughts and feelings they expect to experience themselves, and they will become much more open about the thoughts and feelings that they expect will realistically show up.
This is the key move and is helpful for 2 reasons:
First, it limits the avalanche of difficult self-judgments that players tend to experience when they believe that they should be able to control unintentional thoughts and feelings during matches e.g., "Why can't I believe in myself, you should be able to believe in yourself, you suck."
And second, noticing the helpless thought is absolutely a required step to having a chance to make a choice in what players do next with their attention and actions (as opposed to automatically acting based on the helplessness, which generally leads to a lessening of effort).
Step 3.) Next, as soon as players recognise that they've started to act based on the helplessness, we want to ask them to bring attention back into the present moment and commit to the action/strategy that we have discussed before the match (in the case that your player is skilled at problem solving during matches, you might ask them to employ the strategy that they assess to increases the chance of success for just the next point.)
Once a player has recognised and accepted the helpless thoughts as normal they are better able to draw themselves out of the global, automatic helpless actions and commit to an action that actually helps.
So that's what we need to advise them to do....
I would say something like: "Ok once you've noticed that thought "there's nothing I can do", thank it for the comment like you might thank a passenger on the bus you are driving who is trying to get you to drive in the wrong direction, then commit to (agreed strategy) no matter what for just the next point. And continually practice this process of noticing when you are automatically acting based on the helpless thoughts, and committing for just one point to do something that increases your chance of success on the next one."
For example, if Roger had have noticed his experience of helplessness in the third set, he may have been better able to recommit to more helpful actions that made the score closer which would have turn meant that Hurkacz would have felt more pressure, and perhaps self-doubt, in trying to finish the match.
Why this Works Better...
The reason this works better than expecting that players will not experience helplessness or have the ability to control it is simple.
Players continually experience difficult match related thoughts and feelings as they compete, and it's much more practical and possible for players to notice difficult thoughts and feelings during matches and commit to a helpful action than it is for them to actually control the thought or feeling itself.
And importantly, if a player can actually achieve the process I suggest above, they will likely increase their chance of achieving a successful outcome, which in turn will reduce the intensity of the helplessness experience without trying.
Have a great day :-)
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